The name Willie Bryant probably draws a blank for most Jazz enthusiasts. Mr. Bryant is barely heard on his own records and mostly talks when he is audible. Yet Willie Bryant represents some major issues in Jazz history and his orchestra played some wonderful Jazz.
Willie Bryant was prominent just standing in front of his swinging orchestra and adding joy to the experience of hearing them. Bryant is a major illustration that fame in the early days of Jazz belonged to the person who stood in front of the band and often served no musical function.
I believe this phenomenon is a vestige of March craze of the 1890s and the marching band’s drum major coupled to the supremacy of the conductor in the symphony which created a perception that somebody was needed in front to lead. This misconception - at least as far as Jazz is concerned - was perpetuated by the dominance of Big Bands in Jazz’s early years.
Willie Bryant is a prime illustration of “The Frontman”, a concept probably best understood today by remembering Cab Calloway. Bryant and Calloway represent the range of Frontman personalities with Willie Bryant the more restrained and Cab Calloway more overt. Bryant’s style endeared him to his audience. After The Swing Era, Willie Bryant had a long career as a master of ceremonies and on-air host, becoming known as ‘The Mayor Of Harlem.’
The Willie Bryant Orchestra was “the other band” at The Savoy Ballroom. Again we’re confronted by a concept obvious in its day and unacknowledged now: the legendary Savoy Ballroom had more than one band working fulltime. Today, we might recall the Chick Webb Orchestra, the most famous of The Savoy’s house units which introduced Ella Fitzgerald. The Savoy Ballroom, however, had two bandstands, often employing three “hometeam” bands to play on them as well as a visiting “name” attraction such as Duke Ellington or Count Basie.
With The Swing Era just getting underway, many plum contracts fell the way of the band opposite Chick Webb as the music industry try to get on board. This happened to Willie Bryant who was signed to a prestigious Victor contract at the top of 1935.
Those Victor recordings get us to the bottom line of the music. The insights of “The Frontman” and how The Savoy Ballroom presented music gain import by knowing the music of this forgotten pioneering Swing Era aggregation. Some of Ben Webster’s earliest tenor sax work is here as well as a Big Band representation of the young Teddy Wilson. Benny Carter was musical director briefly, and played trumpet exclusively while in the band. Charlie Frazier - who recorded with King Oliver - offers a bit of his pioneering Jazz flute work. Even Chick Webb’s trumpet star, Taft Jordan, appeared in the Willie Bryant Orchestra. Taft had an argument with Chick and switched over to Bryant’s band (they were playing in the same building) until he and Webb cooled down. Cozy Cole was the drummer in the Willie Bryant Orchestra.
January 4, 1935 - THROWIN’ STONES AT THE SUN/ IT’S OVER BECAUSE WE’RE THROUGH/ A VIPER’S MOAN/ CHIMES AT THE MEETING Robert Cheek, Dick Clarke, Edgar Battle, tp; Shorty Haughton, Robert Horton, tb; Glyn Paque, Stanley Payne, Johnny Russell, possibly a 4th , reeds; Teddy Wilson, p; Arnold Adams, g; Louis Thompson, b; Cozy Cole, d; WILLIE BRYANT talking and singing where heard.
May 8, 1935 - RIGAMAROLE/ ‘LONG ABOUT MIDNIGHT/ THE SHEIK/ JERRY THE JUNKER Benny Carter, Dick Clarke, Edgar Battle, tp; Shorty Haughton, Robert Horton, tb; Glyn Paque, Stanley Payne, Johnny Russell, Ben Webster, reeds; Teddy Wilson, p; Arnold Adams, g; Louis Thompson, b; Cozy Cole, d; WILLIE BRYANT talking and singing where heard. August 1, 1935 - THE VOICE OF OLD MAN RIVER/ STEAK AND POTATOES/ LONG GONE (from Bowling Green)/ LIZA Otis Johnson, Dick Clarke, Edgar Battle, tp; Shorty Haughton, Big George Matthews, tb; Glyn Paque, Stanley Payne, Johnny Russell, Ben Webster, reeds; Ram Ramirez, p; Arnold Adams, g; Louis Thompson, b; Cozy Cole, d; WILLIE BRYANT talking and singing where heard.
April 9, 1936 - IS IT TRUE WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT DIXIE?/ ALL MY LIFE/ THE RIGHT SOMEBODY TO LOVE/THE GLORY OF LOVE/RIDE RED RIDE/MOONRISE ON THE LOWLANDS Dick Clarke, Jack Butler, tp, vo “The Right Somebody To Love”; Taft Jordan, tp, vo “All My Life”; Shorty Haughton, Big George Matthews, tb; Glyn Paque, Stanley Payne, Johnny Russell, Charlie Frazier, reeds; Ram Ramirez, p; Arnold Adams, g; Ernest “Bass” Hill, b; Cozy Cole, d; Willie Bryant talking and singing “Is It True What They Say About Dixie”, “The Glory Of Love”, “Ride Red Ride”, & “Moonrise On The Lowlands”
June 3, 1936 - MARY HAD A LITTLE LAMB/ I LIKE BANANAS (Because They Have No Dick Clarke, Jack Butler, tp, vo “I Like Bananas (Because They Have No Bones)”; Taft Jordan, tp; Shorty Haughton, Big George Matthews, tb; Glyn Paque, Stanley Payne, Johnny Russell, Charlie Frazier, reeds; Ram Ramirez, p; Arnold Adams, g; Ernest “Bass” Hill, b; Cozy Cole, d; Willie Bryant talking and singing on all titles.
The tenor solos on ¼/35 are by Johnny Russell, who also takes ts solos on 5/8/35 except the first ts on “The Sheik” which is by Ben Webster. Ben Webster takes all ts solos on 8/1/1935. On “All My Life”, “The Glory Of Love”, & “Cross Patch” the tenor solo is by Charlie Frazier. Johnny Russell takes ts solos on “The Right Somebody To Love”, “Mary Had A Little Lamb”, & “I Like Bananas (Because They have No Bones)”. On Ride Red Ride Frazier & Russell split the solo in that order. Benny Carter is the trumpet soloist on “The Sheik”. Taft Jordan takes all trumpet solos on 4/9/36. I doubt that Jordan is still in the Willie Bryant Orchestra on 6/3/1936 and he is certainly not identifiable.